Debuting at number one on the Canadian music charts is no small feat, but Little Hell, the newest release from Toronto-based, initially acoustic act City and Colour, renders this accomplishment as less of a surprise. Chronicling the ups and downs of life and relationships over several beautifully haunting tracks – newly characterized by a much wider variety of instrumentation than in past work – it’s a clear that Dallas Green, the voice behind it all, has been making some changes.
“It’s my third record, and as I get older I start to realize that I don’t need to worry about if the people have a preconceived notion of what they think City and Colour should sound like, because it should be anything I want it to sound like,” says Green (also guitarist/singer for post-hardcore outfit Alexisonfire). “I write the songs for me, first, and then you just hope that other people will like them, you know?”
When writing Fragile Bird, the album’s first single, Green had an instinct to push things a bit further: “The acoustic version that I’d written was okay, but I knew there was something else to it, and I just [went with it] because I heard it like that.”
“[On the last record, Bring Me Your Love] I wasn’t worried about what people thought, but I was worried about taking it too far… Maybe that’s why I was sort of easing the drums in. But now I know, certain songs, they need drums, and certain songs don’t.”
Now confident in his decision making, Green welcomes opportunity in his work. “If I write a handful of songs that are just me and a guitar, and I don’t hear anything else, then that’s the way it will be,” he reasons. “But until then, I’m just gonna do what I want to do.”
City and Colour has been known for its raw honesty, and getting personal through music, something that may leave other artists uncomfortable. Green, however, remains adamant in trusting his gut. “I’ve always written that way,” he insists with assurance. “It’s how I help myself through things and, in turn, it helps other people, and that’s great. And if it’s too much for you to listen to, then it’s not for you. I don’t think everyone in the world will like my music, but I think some people will.”
So, among all the stylistically revamped and daringly personal tracks off Little Hell, we asked Green to pick a favourite.
“I think the last song is my favourite, Hope for Now, because it’s got like everything I like in a song. It’s got like moody piano, really quiet, soft harmonies at the beginning and then big loud drums and guitars,” says Green, reiterating his enthusiasm for freedom of musical choice. “It’s got all the different levels of my singing – loud and high, quiet, soft…”
Hope for Now, the powerful and heartfelt closer to the album, is representative of Green’s higher purpose: helping other people through his music. Hearing stories of his music aiding other people “happens all the time,” explains Green, still somehow modest. He recalls a recent encounter with a family who had contacted him about their father using Bring me Your Love’s Sleeping Sickness as therapy in the long aftermath of his son and two other people getting killed by a drunk driver.
“It was the first thing to help him snap out of his misery,” says Green. “He felt like somebody else could relate to what he was going through. So things like that are very, very heavy, but Hope for Now is sort of about like, no matter how many times I hear that, I still worry about if what I’m doing is good enough, or if the songs I’m writing are worth it.”
“Sometimes I feel like, if I can write a song that’s gonna help a man get through the death of his son, will the next song I write be able to do that? And should I care if it does or not? But these are things I think about when I write songs because of what people tell me… I don’t [specifically try to achieve this, but] it’s still there in the back of my mind when I’m writing.”
Despite their strong power of connection with those of us on lows, Green says the popular assumption that his songs are all depressing is inherently false. “They deal with heavy topics,” he explains, “but there’s always light at the end of the tunnel.”
The album’s cover art supports this contention, demonstrating that Dallas isn’t entirely the melancholic soul you may have presumed him to be. “In Holland, they have these things that are called flower streams, and they’re just like fields and fields of tightly, tightly packed rows of flowers, growing,” he explains. “I saw a photo once in a magazine and I just thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen …so my friend Paul just painted [it for me].” The cover art can “be whatever you want it to be” he reasons, “but for me it’s flowers, just beautiful colours.”
Of course, as it seems to be with every element of his work, Green forever revels in opportunities to surprise people. “I like the contrast,” he says, “The record’s called Little Hell and I thought I would make this vibrantly colourful cover just to fuck with people.”
So what is there to learn from Little Hell? And what will the unpredictable balancing act between City and Colour and Alexisonfire unleash next? “I think people should know to expect the unexpected from me,” explains Green. “It’s been ten years of me doing weird things, so… deal with it.”
City and Colour performed at Osheaga 2011 on July 31. Osheaga returns next year from August 3-5, 2012. For more information visit www.osheaga.com